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Tyrone in mood to show true colours

Red Hands hungry to shake off the 'failures' label and cavanagh believes the class of 2014 can grasp glory

By Declan Bogue

There are still those who decry Tyrone as failures last year – and that's something which clearly rankles with skipper Sean Cavanagh.

As he prepares to lead the Red Hands out for the first time in the Ulster Championship against Down at Healy Park, Omagh tomorrow the Moy clubman has become even more acquainted with the towering expectations with his football-mad county.

No significant silverware was captured by Mickey Harte's troops in 2013 but the team nonetheless reached the league final in which they were beaten by Dublin and only surrendered to an inspired Mayo side in the semi-finals of the All-Ireland championship.

In most other counties, this would have been chalked down as a major progress – in Tyrone, it was perceived as under-achieving.

Cavanagh, who has skippered Ireland to International Rules success in the past and whose leadership skills have always been in evidence even without the captain's armband being visible, now believes that Tyrone are actually in a better place because of last year's experiences.

And he's confident that the raft of new faces introduced into the side over a period by manager Harte can achieve a new level of cohesion and fluency tomorrow against a Down side ravenous to reclaim the Ulster crown which they last won in 1994.

"I think we are stronger now than we were last year," declares Cavanagh.

"I accept that we had a small bit of patchy form during the league but apart from that I thought we acquitted ourselves quite well.

"If we can get off to a better start to tomorrow's game than we have been doing in some of our recent matches then I think we will be there or thereabouts."

Cavanagh will line out at centre-half-forward and along with only a very few old hands represents the experienced core of a Tyrone side which rather surprisingly missed out on the league semi-finals after a promising start to the competition.

But it's the fresher faces that he feels could well determine just how the team fares tomorrow against a Down side that is similarly imbued with experience and craft but perhaps lacking a couple of key players.

"We have a number of players in the squad who were new last year but they have now matured quite a bit because of their experience of playing in Division One," points out Cavanagh.

"They are a year older now and I think everyone can see the way they have come on. Certainly we see this on the training field so we know that they are capable of delivering. We have almost a fully-fit panel to choose from with a couple of notable exceptions and that is a big help for a match of this importance."

For once, the theory that the Ulster Championship is an 'open' race holds considerable currency.

This notion has been expressed time and time again in recent years yet, with Cavanagh invariably pulling the strings in midfield, Tyrone have remained a dominant force in the competition having collected five titles since 2000.

Cavanagh agrees that this year there is an element of "total unpredictability" accompanying the title race.

"If you look at the other provinces, we were told that in Leinster teams like Laois, Westmeath and Kildare were coming sides but no team has come close to challenging Dublin," he added.

"Similarly in Connacht, Mayo have been the absolute kingpins recently while Kerry and Cork are the bosses in Munster so that leaves Ulster an open book.

"The only thing you can be certain of out the Ulster title race is its total unpredictability."

The swing in the balance of power certainly lends a considerable dimension of intrigue to this year's flagship competition.

"Success tends to come in waves but in Ulster Donegal and Monaghan have taken over from Armagh and Tyrone when it comes to winning the title," reflects Cavanagh.

"It is probably true that Ulster has the most competitive championship and to win the title is an achievement in itself.

"The likes of the Dublins and the Kerrys are better set up to have a crack at the All-Ireland because they are not pushed too hard in winning their provincial championships but things are much different here in Ulster. A team that carries off the Anglo-Celt Cup deserves to do so."

He believes that his county's overall approach to the Ulster championship inevitably stands them side in good stead for the All-Ireland series.

"We continue to put value on the Ulster Championship and even if we don't manage to win we can usually do ourselves justice in the qualifiers. But you want to stick to the direct route if at all possible," adds Cavanagh.

The Ulster Championship draw this year decrees that Tyrone must negotiate difficult terrain if they are to re-claim the title.

Should they beat Down, the Red Hands will then play reigning provincial champions Monaghan in the quarter-final and afterwards confront Armagh or Cavan in the semi-finals.

"With teams like Derry and Donegal on the other side of the draw it can be seen that we face four massive games in our bid to get the trophy. Having said that, we would still like to think that we will be candidates for the All-Ireland quarter-finals," he adds.

"In 2005 and again in 2008 we found ourselves playing a number of high-profile games within a short space of time but we managed to turn these to our advantage."

His own current state of rude health and fine form certainly provide encouragement for manager Harte.

"I feel stronger now and have fully got over my injuries. I'm in a good place I think but I'm far from complacent," insists Cavanagh.

"I don't see the captaincy as being any sort of extra burden although a year or so ago we had lost an awful lot of experienced players and I suppose people like myself were required to step up to the mark a little more.

"But whether I'm captain or not I like to be encouraging the team, that's just the kind of player I am."

Down could certainly find this out once again to their cost tomorrow.

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